It’s 2:45 am on a cold April night in the Utah backcountry. With the Toyota in tow, my 1996 Ford F-350 Power Stroke and I drove over 16 hours on a normal 10 hour trip. Thanks to a few mechanical setbacks along the way, including a clutch slave cylinder that failed unexpectedly, I burned out 4 hours of daylight doing roadside repairs. I am exhausted, road tired, hungry, and ready to sleep a few hours before starting my cycling trip. Except that there is one problem: my tent, sleeping bag, pillow, food and warm clothes are all well packed in a few tote bags in the truck bed. It was precisely then that I told myself that there had to be a better way.
So the search for the perfect off-road camping setup began. Starting with a simple campervan shell and air mattress on the tow truck, and then moving to a campervan with a full kitchen and bathroom, I tried several different methods to stay comfortable in. outside the network. But with each iteration, I found issues that I couldn’t fix. Whether the comfort and ease were not up to my standards, or the setup was too cumbersome for a long term solution, I felt like I had no more options and was about to go. to install.
But one day I came across an idea that just might be the perfect solution to this problem. I needed a vehicle that could be easily driven around town during the week, but could also tow my Toyota over any terrain and serve as a comfortable place to sleep, cook, and work. Most importantly, it had to be economical and preferably a DIY project. As a Truck Editor for Driving Line, I often found myself working for days in remote destinations, editing photos, videos, and writing articles like this. The plan I was making in my mind seemed to solve each of these problems.
Motorhomes are nothing new. People have been converting vans into RVs for decades, with almost every make and model represented in one form or another. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some even had enough horsepower to easily tow a 4,000 pound truck behind them on a trailer. Finding this future project was made easy thanks to a wealth of information on motorhome conversions on the internet.
On the hunt:
I started my search for the right vehicle. My ideal choice was a 1994-2003 Ford E-350 minivan with a 7.3L Power Stroke diesel engine and standard length body. These vans were hard to find in good condition, as many of them were or still serve as work vans or fleets for various industries. The reasoning for this particular van was strictly based on my previous experiences with the 7.3L as an incredibly reliable working engine, capable of the abuse of everyday driving and towing. In addition, there are many RV parts available for the Ford Econoline, and the E-350 model comes with a full float Dana 60 rear axle. The standard-length body will make it easier to fit into ordinary parking spaces when driving around town, and the van variant gives me a blank canvas to build it as I want. I finally found one that looked promising and was listed just five minutes from my house. After seeing it in person, taking a test drive and a bit of haggling, I finally made it home with it.
This 1999 Ford E-350 Power Stroke Van was the perfect blank canvas. It was incredibly clean for its age, with no major injuries or paint defects, and it drove like new. Although the mileage is pretty high at 302,000, I have owned enough 7.3L Power Strokes to know what to look for in a high mileage specimen, and this one has been checked. While other components like the automatic transmission, front suspension, and steering were starting to show their age, I was planning on replacing them anyway, so I didn’t really mind. This van was a perfect starting point for my conversion to a motorhome.
As a visual type person, armed with a few photoshop skills that I have honed over the years, I quickly created a photoshop render of the exterior of the van, showing a possible result for the final product. My plans include a 4WD conversion, swapping out the front dual i-beams for a solid Dana 60 axle, 35 inch Nitto Ridge grapples, 17 inch Icon alloy wheels, roof rack, ladder, front and rear bumpers with winch bracket, full-size spare tire, storage box and LED lighting. I also decided to photoshop some windows, as my van currently does not have one. I also took the opportunity to convert the front clip to a 2008+ Econoline clip, giving the van a bit more modern flair.
But I couldn’t stop outside. My creativity was flowing and I thought about creating a floor plan for the interior. I quickly took a few measurements of the cargo space in the van and drew a digital version (mostly) to scale of the van from a top down perspective. Starting with the most important element, the bed, I carefully arranged the rest of the interior. Needing a place to work, I opted for a camper-style folding sofa bed. This allows me to work from the sofa during the day and then open it later into a double bed for sleeping. I placed a cabinet for my camera equipment and a holder for my computer to attach during transport. I’m even planning to make a sliding keyboard and mouse platform. The galley and storage would be installed at the rear of the van, where it is easily accessible with the barn doors open.
While both of these renderings are just ideas and reality may end up straying from this shot, I think it’s a good place to start. After watching hundreds of RV conversion tutorials and walkthrough videos, I had a clear idea of how aesthetic I would like the final design to look.
Now that the van was mine and the ideas were on paper, it was time to start putting together the components needed to get started. I want to install and remove the hard parts first, while the van is the lightest. I found a Quigley 4×4 conversion kit for sale on my local classifieds, and had no hesitation in picking it up. This kit came with everything needed to convert the van to 4WD, minus the transfer case and driveshafts. I then found an NP271 transfer case and tail shaft housing for my transmission, and had it delivered to King of the Hammers where I was able to meet the seller and bring it home. There were still the driveshafts, which I will order custom once everything is in place. This kit will allow me to run whatever wheels and tires I want, and lift the pickup truck for a lot of clearance.
Once the suspension and drivetrain are tuned, I’ll focus on some performance needs. The 7.3L Power Stroke was a powerful engine back then, but sorely lacking in power by today’s turbodiesel standards. Fortunately, they’re conducive to modifications that increase horsepower, and most parts that fit F-Series trucks just as easily fit the pickup. On the shortlist is a 4-inch turbo-back exhaust system, a tuner with custom tunes, a digital gauge display and optionally an intercooler system to maintain exhaust gas temperatures (EGT). low while towing.
Finally, I take care of the interior. I figured the best place to start was the windows and roof vents, cut them out and install them, then move on to insulating the interior panels from top to bottom. Then the floor, walls and ceiling can come in, followed by the bed and furniture. This will give me a solid way to map the wiring for outlets, lighting and electronics, as well as a diesel heater. And finally, the decor and the finishing touches can come in.
This motorhome construction is something that I am really looking forward to tackling. Not only will this put my mechanical abilities to the test, having never converted a vehicle to 4WD, but it will also allow me to open up my creativity to make it something that is mine, inside and out. outside. But that is really what motorhomes are. They are a personal expression of people in the form of a vehicle, somewhere between a car and a house. I can’t wait to collect the final pieces to get started on this project. This is something I have never done before, but I have no doubts that it will exceed my expectations as a mobile office and a home away from home.
Want to follow the construction process? Check out Matt’s Chasing Dust vlog on Driving Line’s YouTube channel!